Appreciating the Fine Goods of Willem van Aelst at MFA

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Willem van Aelst made a career out of painting still lifes of fine goods -- furs, precious metals, feathers. In other words, items that would have appealed to his wealthy clientele. To think of it another way, it's like a modern-day artist who paints Louis Vuitton purses. But if painted by van Aelst, they would be the most stunning Louis Vuitton purses you have ever seen.

Van Aelst was a virtuoso painter during the 17th century Dutch still-life era, though, in a crowded scene, he hasn't always gotten his due (artists like Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch, the latter of whom he taught, are his better-known contemporaries). In fact, Van Aelst has never had an exhibition devoted solely to his work until now, with Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The show features 27 oil paintings pulled from the artist's known canon of about 150 works. It is a fitting tribute to the skilled painter, who rose to the challenge of matching the sumptuousness and brilliance of the luxury objects he painted. Granted, it wasn't all glamour; about half of the works on display here are of game -- trophies of rabbits, roosters and rams that are almost too realistically depicted as they stare back at you, dead in the eyes. The other half of the show is devoted to his paintings of flowers and fruit. Both display his use of radiant color, nuanced lighting and fine attention to detail, down to the blood on a chicken's beak in Hunt Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge, a missing button on a hunting jacket in Still Life with Birds and Hunting Equipment or a fly on a dead rooster in Still Life with Birds.

There are many little discoveries like these to be made throughout the show, which traces van Aelst's development as an artist, from more muted, less defined works like Still Life with a Mouse and a Candle to his highly detailed paintings of flowers. In "Group of Flowers," for instance, the roses are dramatically and impressively depicted in all various cycles of their development, from the closed bud to the wilting flower with petals missing. It's subtle, but most of his work is.

The highlight of the show may not even be one of van Aelst's works. The museum's anatomy of Hunt Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge breaks down the painting layer by layer, the types and value of the materials used, and the subject matter. There's plenty of fascinating trivia to take in (One fun fact: The brilliant blue of the bag was originally green, but the pigment has since vanished over time). You'll be geeking out in no time.

"Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst" at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, now through May 28. For more information, call 713-639-7300 or visit the museum's Web site.

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